(Book) Soup of the Month
Presenting our (Book) Soup of the Month:
A monthly selection our booksellers want you to love, too!
Olga Tokarczuk is the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is her newly translated novel, which was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize.
November 2019. In Tokarczuk’s grotesque comedy we are introduced to Janina Duszejko, an astrologer who cares for silent unkempt spaces belonging to local Warsaw inhabitants. Their summer homes are like corpses. Although Janina follows the Moon for guidance, she reluctantly confesses to not being so great at Astrology: "I see us moving blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It's easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence." We are led to believe that she has no real home herself; she is an outcast wherever she ends up. Janina finds herself wrapped up in a murder case in her neighborhood – a case that leads her to believe that the Animals are seeking revenge on Mankind. Janina reflects, “We have a view of the world, but Animals have a sense of the world.” The authorities mock her findings.
Big Foot was her first discovery. The body, twisted up on the floor. The one who had slain the forest animals, and displayed them with disrespect around the perimeter of his cottage. Janina takes note of everything in his home – his dirty underwear, and how his death “might have been a good thing. It had freed him from the mess that was his life. And it had freed other living Creatures from him.”
Janina is anxious and an insomniac. She makes sure to wash her feet before heading to bed, just in case she is taken to the hospital in the middle of the night. She has an Ailment, one that she has foreseen in the stars, which implements her own death. Yet as a woman ripe with knowledge, intuition, and with her youth behind her, Janina is a prisoner in other people's summer homes. She has a theory, too; she believes that our cerebellum “has not been correctly connected to our brain.” She foretells a greater future than the one she experiences, if only we were able to possess “full knowledge of our own anatomy, of what was happening inside of our bodies.” Janina drinks only black tea. Dry muesli crumbs settle and create a fine line of dust on her Ephemerides.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is also a book about translation. Dionizy (aka Dizzy), once Janina’s student, comes to visit with Janina on Fridays when they would translate William Blake. Although Janina has never cared for poetry, and she finds Blake’s work too similar to children’s rhymes, she wishes that it were written in the “proper prose format”, then admits to being no good at translation anyways, her English mostly forgotten. She would let Dizzy stay over on those cold Friday evenings. She’d leave her bedroom door open throughout the night so that they could “hear each other’s breathing.”
Dizzy becomes another unwilling witness to the unusual happenings taking place in town – he grabs a flashlight, takes Janina’s hand, and heads off into the neighborhood. They run above the olive groves, toward the evergreen ruins, a walnut tree ahead, and find yet another victim. There had been a windmill on site, years ago before the war. They follow hoof prints toward a well, where there lay the next bloody, ominous body. Her astrological reading of Dizzy: “His generation has Pluto in Libra, which somewhat weakens their vigilance. And they think they can balance hell. I don’t believe they’ll manage it.”
- Gina Clark, Book Soup Bookseller
October 2019. How to Do Nothing is an analysis of attention – our most valued currency today. Jenny Odell explores the economics of the attention we give, the attention we get, the attention that doesn’t receive attention, the attention that receives too much attention, and finally, the cost-benefit analysis of diverting your attention from one thing to another. Just kidding about the last part. This isn’t an economics paper.
In all seriousness though, you didn’t come here to learn how to do nothing, did you?
We’ve heard it all before: Quit social media! Learn to meditate! Limit your time in front of a screen! Do yoga! Go for hikes! Stop and smell the roses! Call your mother! Good vibes only! Though these are all wonderful practices to integrate into daily life, Odell, without negating the value of these activities, dives deeper into what it means to listen, to watch, to speak, to walk, and to react. Along with reading this book, I listened to at least five podcast episodes she was a guest on. When asked to describe the philosophy of her book, she often said it was like “going for a walk instead of walking to go somewhere.”
Odell utilizes her curiosity by letting it direct her. Curiosity opens doors to new avenues of thought and experience. At times it can feel like curiosity impedes productivity – another significant topic that informed this book. We live in a society where we are expected to constantly produce new products and stories, and… well, realities. Odell also questions the process of maintenance. Why are we quick to neglect that in exchange for something new? Are productive and meaningful interchangeable? Odell’s extremely insightful exploration of this concept concludes that our minds make memories, but so do our bodies. Beginning with our nervous system and extending to our fingertips and toes, we create memories that, when revisited, ignite a visceral sensation in us.
Every generation needs a Jenny Odell or two. With a likeness to Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and countless others, her discussion doesn’t present any new philosophies. We can, however, accept that Odell is the new messenger of this philosophy. Everyone needs a refresher, a reminder, or a bucket of cold water thrown in their faces to come back to what is real; to what is tangible.
Odell also states that our attention may be the only (re)source we have left. We can choose how we spend it; we can do it with intent, which means we can refuse to spend it, too. We can give ourselves permission to stand apart – stand away at a distance and remove ourselves from a situation – and carefully observe it without abandoning it, coming back when necessary. From her personal art practice to teaching art at Stanford, Odell researches the relationship between technology and the natural world, what it means to live a productive life, to really experience the reality we live in. It’s impossible for me to even consider letting you in on all that Odell discusses in this book. It’s rich with old philosophies that reverberate through to today.
- Zish Chunara, Book Soup Supervisor, Greeting Card Buyer
September 2019. As I lay contemplating Harbart, a shadow betwixt the jaws of my dreams emerge. I hoard each of Bhattacharya’s words as they burst in front of my eyes. Though while also disheartened by a tale as somber as this, it is one of sublime nature. Our anti-hero, Harbart, receives a divine message in a dream from his closest friend Binu, one of the recently deceased. Binu who came to Calcutta to study Geology Honors at Asutosh College. Binu, who taught Harbart his first rhyme: “Chop-sticks, broom-sticks, nothing scares the Communists.” Harbart follows the instructions from the dead to reveal the truth about Communism. Thus, an implausible rumor spreads across Calcutta. Neighbors, from the broke to the notoriously well-off, are knocking down his door, hungry for their turn to converse with the dead. A yellow signboard above Harbart’s office in the house is nailed up and painted onto a sheet of wood-framed tin, in red letters: “Conversations with the Dead: Prop: Harbart Sakur.”
Harbart Sakur. The unwanted. Born September 16, 1949. Father Lalitkumar. Mother Shobharani; both whom were killed shortly after his first birthday. Harbart. Known to attract death, or rather, death seemed to follow him. A close friend, Khororobi, commits suicide. Nevertheless our teenage recluse slept outside on the veranda, lush with foliage, thick with the remnants of his nightmarish life. Atop the veranda, which often survived the monsoons, was his bedroom. He would read and write his poetry from here. Most importantly though, from his veranda he would watch the object of his affection, Buki, returning home from her studies. I guess things were kinda sleepy in the small suburb where Harbart was raised. Although, a one Ghutiari Sharif kept wild tigers there in the seventeenth century — later a drought pervasively took over, and the town was left famished. Out of nowhere appeared a man named Pir Ghazi Mubarak Ali Sahab, who meditated until the rains finally came.
But Harbart didn’t care much for these facts; he was too busy living in fear of the torment from his family. Harbart’s only escapes were his books, and Buki. He would watch her —and she would watch him —both from their terrace. The cranes fly in, the two fall asleep. These shy lovers first spoke at the local library, which was also where they would see one another for the very last time. All that Harbart had left were the evenings where he would crawl into the Ganga-water tank on the top of the terrace, collecting small creatures. Slugs, shrimp. When the tank dried out he watched the rainwater collect and listened to the swarms of locusts fly into the empty water tank. There were elections, but Harbart never bothered to vote. This is Bhattacharya’s Calcutta.
“At the base of a golden mountain, vast cave from whose ceiling hang slivers of stone…Slime on the face of the moon…by the video shop—Gyanobaan and Buddhimaan had been the first to take the revolutionary step of setting it up…crow shit slowly smear-soil the glass.”
At the crux of his demise, Harbart had always dreamed of being able to afford a portable television. A lizard crawls across his chest, and red ants fill his nostrils. Harbart was dead. Now, almost middle-aged, his body is whisked away to the crematorium. His only belongings – an umbrella and Ulster, notes, and the books from his grandfather — sold for scraps and were given away to the beggars who cleaned up his remains. There were two books that our Harbart cherished: Accounts of the Afterlife by Mrinal Kanti Ghosh Bhaktibhushan, (Second Edition), and Mysteries of the Afterlife by Kalibar Bedantabagish. In conclusion, the closest Harbart ever got to real love was a fairy imagined at his window… a lady doctor who flashes a longing glance, and then there was Buki. The only one who actually loved him.
Nabarun Bhattacharya, an Indian Bengali writer, passed away in 2014. Harbart, translated from the Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee 25 years after its original publication, was his first novel which quickly became a beloved cult classic.
- Gina Clark, Book Soup Bookseller
August 2019. Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is the perfect swampy August read. Darkly humorous and deeply strange – in the best possible ways! A nuanced portrait of family, grief, queerness, heartbreak, and preservation. Exceedingly absorbing and well-written.
In Arnett’s vividly conjured and oppressively-sunny Florida, Jessa-Lynn Morton prefers to work in the shade. Her privacy is integral to her personal equilibrium; an ethos that might be best summed up by Jessa’s own words: “love makes you an open wound, susceptible to infection.” So Jessa sews her emotions up tight, an invisible stitch that keeps her insides, well, inside. This proves to be a particularly difficult task when the love of her life – her best friend and, coincidentally, the wife of her brother – has abandoned them. Her father, whom she idolized, committed suicide in the taxidermy shop she grew up in. Her mother is “finding herself” by destroying Jessa’s work; her repressed sexuality has bubbled to the surface of this familial swamp and her artistic creations are troubling, sexually deviant monstrosities – depending on who you ask.
Jessa was born into the family business. She took to it immediately. Where her sensitive brother Milo turned squeamish, Jessa flourished amidst animal guts and pelts under her father’s careful tutelage. But when Jessa’s father kills himself, she is left to shoulder the burden of the taxidermy shop – as well as her family. But the ties that bind them have come loose at the seams…
Jessa, ever the perfectionist, will mend, stitch and patch until her calloused hands bleed, but just like her creations, there is no life behind the eyes. Jessa’s unrest is as stagnant as the sweltering Florida heat that holds her life in this limbo between breathing and living. The kind of heat that makes the lines blur, that keeps her reaching for another cold beer. Then another. And another.
When I saw the cover of Mostly Dead Things, I immediately thought of a line from Billy Crystal’s character, Miracle Max, in the film The Princess Bride: “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” Arnett has mined the depths of this distinction. Though Jessa’s life has the veneer of death (in her family, her work, her love life) she is still slightly alive. And through this sliver of life, love, in all its messy glory, will pour into the soul. Whether you want it to or not.
- Becca Pecaut, Book Soup Bookseller
July 2019. It’s easy enough to craft a narrative that either entertains or informs, but Thomas Page McBee comes pretty close to doing both with absolute perfection. Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man a Man documents McBee’s experience as a first-time boxer, jumping headlong into a brutal five-month training regimen that culminates in a high-profile charity boxing match. This feat made McBee the first transgender person to enter the ring at Madison Square Garden – a groundbreaking achievement. Beginning with a hero’s descent into the subterranean world of the New York gym and following through to the culmination and aftermath of his efforts, Amateur would be an absorbing narrative. McBee goes further with it, however, as he keenly infuses his experience with broader, more ethereal questions: Why are so many men quick to fight? Why are so many men reluctant to cry? Why is the process of becoming a man so often tied to violence, domination and stoicism? McBee sets out to, if not definitively answer those questions, at least interrogate them. At a sinewy 200 pages, Amateur can’t be expected to definitively answer all of those questions – but that’s ultimately not the point. The value of Amateur is McBee’s willingness to journey into those questions, doing everything to acknowledge and set aside preconceived notions.
As a result, Amateur offers one revelation after another. Where a lesser writer would turn philosophical departures or teachable moments into set pieces that stop their narrative in its tracks, McBee weaves them in fluidly. There’s some judiciously sparse academic commentary here and there, but McBee relies primarily on his experiences and observations. He dissects the performative masculinity indigenous to his new friend group: the no-nonsense, blue-collar trainer who frequently exclaims “Tommy’s got balls;” the aggressive Wall Streeter who strikes McBee as the kind of late-capitalist nightmare humans dreamed up by Bret Easton Ellis or Oliver Stone; the gruff nineteen-year-old upstart boxer who asks McBee about his top surgery scars. He’s alarmed at the ease with which he himself falls into masculine behavioral patterns that are usually given that lightning-rod designation of “toxic.” He returns, time and again, to an altercation with a stranger on Orchard Street in Lower Manhattan – a verbal confrontation that almost led to fisticuffs – that proved to be a key moment in his transition. This portrait of masculinity certainly isn’t all positive, but it isn’t all bad either.
A record of a fraught and uncertain journey, Amateur is a masterclass of a memoir. A journalist by trade, McBee captures both his journey and his broader questions about masculinity on the page with precision, immediacy and admirable compassion. As his own guinea pig in Amateur social experiment, he’s awake to the beautiful absurdities he encounters at every turn: “There I was,” he says, shortly before the fight, “still intact, loving those men even as I hit them in the face, and knowing that they loved me back.” His exquisite descriptions of the new places and people around him make for an added bonus. He captures the humid basement locker rooms, the gruff exchanges between coaches and trainees, and the uneasy human tapestry of New York’s streets with vivid and conversational confidence. Much like the climactic Madison Square Garden fight, Amateur is over before you realize it; but the pleasure and pathos it gives its reader lingers long after McBee has thrown his final punch.
- Kieran Kenney, Book Soup Bookseller
June 2019. Lot is a nightmarish glimpse into the lives of the working class, revealing tales of familial trauma, and the forbidden aspects of queer love. With brutal honesty, Washington leaves nothing to the imagination in highlighting how toxic ideologies of domesticity still run rampant and that prejudice is everywhere, even in places that appear hidden. Lot contains elements which do not only encompass the politics of race, infidelity, and poverty; these are also stories which increasingly illuminate ideas of love as intimate monologues nodding off into a weightless symphony.
It is in this urban community of decay that we encounter unforgettable characters: Miguel, the crux of our narrator’s spiritual freedom; Benito, the “resident queer”; Roberto, who’s “pimply in all the wrong places”. There are other characters we are introduced to as well, who simply disappear without a trace. In this sense, Lot is an unapologetic portrayal of abandonment. Bryan Washington presents to the reader a collection that feels more like first person accounts rather than fiction; stories that deal with HIV, sex workers, shit jobs, murder, homophobia, racism, and violent upbringings, revealing that especially in communities under economic despair, individuals are dealing with devastating realities where skin color labels you and being queer remains taboo.
As the reader, we don’t know the narrator by his name unless it is muttered by one of his lovers, such as Miguel — the boy we really do want him to end up with. By the end of the book, Miguel calls out “Nicholaus…What if you stayed, he said. He reached for my arms on the mattress. Laced his fingers in mine. I could smell me on his breath—or not me. Us.” Is our young protagonist ready to love without fear? This fear born from the homophobia in his community, especially from his brothel-owning brother Javi, who states that “the only thing worse than a junkie was a faggot son.” Eventually Nicholaus steals Miguel’s car and heads past Highway 59 to the ocean in Galveston, only to realize that he is running from love itself.
Through Washington’s debut novel, we are presented with scenarios which may propel some of us into an unwanted glance back into our own childhood. But ultimately, amidst the grotesque social landscapes we must survive — especially if those of us are people of color, or queer — we are granted a whisper of hope. But how can one navigate a forbidden love? How can one ‘come out’ in a town that is so unforgiving? In the title chapter, we are garnered more of a glimpse into Nicholaus’ own loneliness, the disintegration of his family life, and most profoundly, his day job. “I slice and marinate and unsleeve the meat. Pack it in aluminum. Load the pit, light the fire. The pigs we gut have blue eyes.” Washington's characters pose many questions, the main one being: how is it that we might be able to separate ourselves from the tragedies we witness growing up in poverty stricken communities? Our narrator is determined to answer this question, although he is, at the same time, bitter. And rightfully so. Similar to most working class communities, much like the ones which our narrator describes to us, the poor rob the poor. This is a book for survivors, social rejects, immigrants, and divorcees. This is a book that everyone needs to read, especially those who have never experienced poverty first hand.
- Gine Clark, Book Soup Bookseller
May 2019. Powerful, affecting essays on mental illness, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award
An intimate, moving book written with the immediacy and directness of one who still struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness, The Collected Schizophrenias cuts right to the core. Schizophrenia is not a single unifying diagnosis, and Esmé Weijun Wang writes not just to her fellow members of the “collected schizophrenias” but to those who wish to understand it as well. Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life. In essays that range from using fashion to present as high-functioning to the depths of a rare form of psychosis, and from the failures of the higher education system and the dangers of institutionalization to the complexity of compounding factors such as PTSD and Lyme disease, Wang’s analytical eye, honed as a former lab researcher at Stanford, allows her to balance research with personal narrative. An essay collection of undeniable power, The Collected Schizophrenias dispels misconceptions and provides insight into a condition long misunderstood.
Magical Negro: A supporting character in fiction that comes to the aid of the white protagonist in a film. Often possesses special insight or mystical powers.
“Molly, you in danger girl.” –Oda Mae Brown (Ghost; 1990)
Let this collection of words heal you. Let it inform you. Allow it to confront you and tell you the truth, hold you accountable and make you finally be seen. The “Magical Negro” was created to protect whiteness, assist whiteness, and defend whiteness at all costs even if that means destroying your magical self. Morgan Parker pulls the curtain—no, rips the curtain away to reveal the gritty underbelly of a people, motherless children. Parker is the witness. She adapts the voices of the ones who came before, threads the pieces, and lights the way for the ones to come.
A mirror of sorts, Parker explores every detail of black perception, through personal experiences and the collective conscious. She dances from Frederick Douglass to fried chicken using iconic figureheads and stereotypes. I winced at the very violent and cold depiction of the “strong-black woman” and vividly saw the yogi, sage-ing her way through Brooklyn dodging microaggressions. She skillfully dissects black culture, its relationship to itself, its surroundings, and its country. Parker’s words are wild with imagery, slight humor, and common phrases from the “Negro lexicon” (i.e. “Samo-Samo”) filtered through two main lenses: the central lens of the magical negro, product of white propaganda, and the black lens, victims of supremacy, wrangled by fear, strong and resilient, broken but surviving and prospering.
“Single black female, forgive us our dissonance, we hold shame close.”
I tried desperately to read and review these poems objectively. Separate my existence from the work. Offer my opinions unbiased. Parker made this virtually impossible when I read this line. I took it in and confronted myself. When you encounter this work, you will have a similar experience regardless of race or gender. In three parts Parker connects you to many tropes that plague the black community and leaves you with the raw and unfiltered effects on the bodies and souls of black folk. Let this collection of words heal you. Let it inform you. Allow it to confront you and tell you the truth, hold you accountable and make you finally be seen.
- Tameka Blackshir, Book Soup Receiver
March 2019. I cannot write an essay that will adequately relay the importance of this story collection, and anyway, you probably don't want to hear it. I can tell you that I had to put the book down after the first, blistering story, and although I tried, it was impossible to shake.
My guess is that Friday Black will make some readers squirm (as I did) and others nod their head, recognizing that they have shared some of these same experiences. It calls together a dystopian world that might be realized for some of us, later, and already in progress for others. The book is both ahead of its time and of the moment. It dares the reader to keep reading and then rewards them when they do.
In 2019 it seems we cannot retreat to old entertainments for comfort, and anyway we probably shouldn't. I'm writing this essay two days after Green Book was elected the best motion picture of 2018, and all sorts of people feel all sorts of ways about it. I wish we could gather around books like we do films. Everyone should read this book and then start a conversation with someone else about race, family, police violence, or the ridiculousness of participating in Black Friday sales promotions .
I think good fiction should ask tough questions, push you out of your comfort zone, and make you realize that you have skin in the game. That's not to say you will be woke upon completing this interconnected story cycle, perhaps bothered is more like it, but that's where we are in 2019.
But don't take my word for it - Mary Karr, Roxane Gay, and George Saunders have offered high praise to this collection - the first by Adjei-Brenyah. I can tell you that I will be waiting to see what he does next.
- Dan Graham, Assistant Promotional Director, Book Soup
February 2019. What drives us forward as human beings more acutely than the notion of wanting? When we want something—truly desire it—won't we pursue it with every molecule in our body? Wanting may seem like desperation to some, but in Jill Soloway's new memoir She Wants It, they argue that there is a divine power in the act of wanting. One morning, Soloway awoke with a “Zen koan” in their head, formatted in this way on page 175 of their book:
“I want / I’m not
I am / I want.”
While pondering these two statements, Soloway has an epiphany: “I suddenly understood wanting as a powerful, even dignified activity rather than an expression of need.” This notion, of wanting as a source of power, drives Soloway’s book that is as much a memoir as it is a treatise on gender, ambition, and creation.
Wanting their own show is what drove Soloway to create Transparent, and they take us through the conception, development, and execution of this series beat by beat. It is a thrilling experience even if, like me, you have never seen the show, because it is about so much more than filming a series. The book opens with Soloway getting a phone call from their dad, who comes out as trans, and touches back in on the development of her identity throughout the entirety of She Wants It. Soloway tells the reader that the creation of Transparent was, in large part, a way to make the world a safer, more understanding place for their parent.
Wanting an entertainment industry that was safer for—and more open to hearing the voices of—women is what led Soloway to an important role in the formation of the Time’s Up movement. Wanting to be their authentic self is what led to Soloway exploring their queerness and identity as a non-binary person. It is wanting, Soloway argues, either directly or indirectly, throughout the entire book, that helps us become the best version of ourselves.
She Wants It is a powerful book with a lot to say. I devoured this memoir and it led me to a lot of deep introspection about my own identity and place in the world. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to open their minds through one person’s journey into the complex worlds of gender, sex, entertainment, and ambition.
- Sarah Nivala, Book Soup Supervisor
December 2018. Bethany Morrow’s captivating and cinematic debut novel Mem is a work of speculative literary fiction, merging delectable descriptions of Art Deco architecture with ruminations on cloning, memory, and identity (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, transported to Montreal at the height of the Roaring Twenties). Mem’s narrator and protagonist, Elsie, is the result of a scientific breakthrough that allows for the extraction of painful and traumatic memories. While their wealthy, elite Sources soon forget these upsetting experiences, they go on to dwell inside of “mems,” pale and fractured creatures whose sole purpose is to relive the worst parts of other people’s lives, over and over ad infinitum.
Elsie, of course, is not quite like the other mems. She doesn’t look like they do. She doesn’t feel like they do. Her unique ability to recall all of her Source’s pre-extraction life, as well as to form her own memories, grants her uncommon freedoms. She gives herself a name, participates in public life, even becomes something of a local celebrity. Elsie’s life, such as it is, is her own. That is, until she’s called back to the Vault to be “reprinted” and effectively erased.
While Elsie’s struggle to escape reprinting will enrapture fans of sci-fi thrillers, and the novel’s gorgeous alternate-historical setting will delight Roaring Twenties enthusiasts (think Blade Runner with cloche hats and flapper haircuts), the heart of this novel lies in its delicate exploration of the nature of personhood. Reading Mem forces us to consider our own lineage, and the unique qualities that make us who we are. We can’t help but dwell upon our own experiences: which we’d choose to forget if only it were possible, and the people we might be, if we’d still be ourselves, without them.
For Elsie, this memory – the one she was created to hold – is of a horrific car accident, an experience that leaves her haunted by the knowledge that “it is possible to be killed by the most prized of possessions, to be destroyed by the greatest invention of our time.” One can’t help but wonder: what, then, are the technologies we rely on capable of? What power have we granted them over us?
Give Mem this holiday season to the anxious technophobe in your life, to the lover of local small press lit, to the sci-fi fanatic, to the person who can’t wait for Dadaism to make its inevitable comeback. Or keep a copy for yourself and ponder the fragile nature of existence over a mug of hot chocolate. You won’t want to forget this book.
- Nadine Vassallo, General Manager, Book Soup
January 2019. Time is wicked, and it holds us hostage. Ham over swiss, a friendship, a bus ride: all function within the constraints of the inner workings of time. Each of us has our own intimate relationship with the past, present, and imagined future. So—before we panic—the precarious, spinning wheel of time reveals itself through the eyes of one Italian theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, a poet of the sciences who provokes the reader compassionately and coherently, tempting us with various inquiries, some emotional, some scientific (such as, when we look through a telescope, are we looking out into the past or the future?).
By the arrival of the telegraph in the nineteenth century, our comprehension of timetables forced us into proposing standardized time; this changed everything. Not very far before, we based our lives on the diurnal rhythms of animal and plant life, primal sensations relative to the moon’s cycles, our hormones and molecular organisms that make up the biochemistry of our internal clocks. So where does this leave us? Slaves to something we cannot see? We can access this ancient knowledge so that we may measure the ways time changes us, the main detrimental frustration we currently face. But, if nothing changes, does time not exist?—and which is more frightening to acknowledge? Rovelli’s The Order of Time delicately mends ideas of linear time. He convinces us that the relationship of time to change is not illusory, but is a grammatical question rather than a globally-determined one.
Time is hungry and never satisfied. Its jelly-like wingspan veils our vascular system, tugs at our quantum breath, our gravitational subconscious. We’re left at the mercy of time, begging for an understanding, an extension. We stand there sucking our thumbs while pleading for more—more time! —only to come to the realization that time is the anchor which we cannot always navigate. One may measure time by marking events along a continuum, but to define the order of time takes a specific set of skills. As inebriated as we may be, duration is a not always a leisure; it is a sharp persistence shoving us into the corner, laughing outside our peripherals, begging us to figure where to go from ‘here’, how to love, and how to better comprehend the feeling of the loss of time. Rovelli tells us we can make peace with this loss, and introduces us to the freedom of chance in quantum physics, while reminding us how the mystical tower of our past reflects a mighty shadow; one barely reliable (yet vastly relatable) as the grin on our face subsides.
“Where is a kiss, tomorrow? It is unlike the stone, which still exists. A kiss is a happening. A stone is a thing... but we don't understand them the way we do a kiss. A happening disappears. Yet the 'thing' is around for millions of years, like the stone.”
- Gina Clark, Book Soup Bookseller
November 2018. Don't be misled by its title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee will teach you anything but. That being said, reading the work of a master like Chee cannot help but force you to improve your own writing, if that's your thing. He won't tell you how to write, but gosh darn it he will certainly show you.
Whether he's describing the sound of mangoes (or bullets) hitting windshields outside while he tried to sleep during his summer spent living in Mexico as a teenage boy, or reminiscing about working for some of the wealthiest people in America in his late twenties, Chee keeps the reader engaged in his essays as if they were works of elaborate and suspenseful fiction. But these aren't simply stories of a man's life. These essays offer wisdom, hope, and beauty in the most unexpected places. They are tiny works of art short enough to devour in one sitting yet long enough to savor over a three day weekend. There are countless lines in here that are just begging to be underlined, circled, or highlighted. Indulge yourself. Good books are meant to be ravished.
If you're new to essay collections, I suggest you start here. Chee knows how to teach all of us things without ever seeming like he isn't one of us. His voice is present in each piece in this delicate collection in a different and special way. These stand alone beautifully and need no context to be appreciated, but read together as a whole they are an intricately braided tapestry of stories, concepts, and ideas, the depth of which cannot be ignored. If you don't trust me well enough yet (I know, I know, we barely know each other), read this book because Eileen Myles blurbed it. They described it best when they called it 'strangely romantic AND practical'. But most of all, read this book because there's a story about Chloe Sevigny in it, and if you think you don't like Chloe Sevigny, the only one you're lying to is yourself.
- Molly Ash, Book Soup Bookseller
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018. The ecstasy we experienced while reading Flights was, at first, tempered by a mild sense of frustration. Over the course of episodes that span decades, continents, and genres, it isn’t always clear how everything fits. It isn’t obvious how an anatomist’s search for a means of preserving the human body relates to a tour guide telling fairy tales to a herd of voyagers, or how these and other stories relate to the maps and diagrams sprinkled throughout the novel. Nevertheless, our appetite for these humble accounts held us captive.
As the enchantment continued, we realized that Olga Tokarczuk had written the type of book we so longed to read: one that places us right beside the narrator, or rather, that places her inside our own heads, reminding us of the pleasures and pains of being an observer. Terrifying, vulnerable, dense, thoroughly saturated with object-affection and dismembered bodies, blood transfusion politics, shampoo ads, airplane food, a singer’s gesture at a funeral mass for Chopin, cursing in Polish at a video rental shop, a mercy killing, honeysuckle straight to the sea, a letter from Josefine to the Emperor of Austria… encounters etched into time, illustrating decades of loneliness.
But Flights is more than just a compendium of existential crises; these fragmented tales feel like scientific case studies that Tokarczuk trusts us to decipher. Remnants of the author’s time as a clinical psychologist seep through the pages. We are seduced by this methodology, led to believe that these may be musings on the philosophical topography of Tokarczuk’s frightening kraina czarów (wonderland).
“Too far from what, too near to what?” mumbles the narrator in one of Tokarczuk’s enigmatic chapters. Each character represents our desperation to belong while disregarding our places, simultaneously mapping nostalgia and inheriting doubt. Stay longer. Time to depart. Why do we leave? Why do we return?
In the last hundred pages of Tokarczuk’s novel, during one of many airplane rides, the narrator finds a handwritten message on the back of an unused barf bag in the seat-pocket in front of her: “10/12/2006: Striking out for Ireland. Final destination Belfast. Students of the Rzeszów Institute of Technology.” Like the reader of Flights, the narrator glimpses a story in this collection of departures and intended arrivals, even if she is left to imagine for herself the psychological terrain this journey entails. It is the sentiment behind this letter (and behind Tokarczuk’s book) that binds us to these characters: a desire for connection, for our journeys to have an audience, for our loneliness to find a home in the collective, unyielding pilgrimage.
Our interview with Olga Tokarczuk was conducted over email. Jennifer Croft, the translator of Flights, also translated both sides of our conversation:
Jonah & Gina: While reading Flights, it became clear to us how so many disparate narrative threads are actually in careful conversation with one another. Do you remember which of these strands came to you first and affected you most deeply? And, how did the order in which you wrote each section relate to the way they appear in Flights?
Olga Tokarczuk: I thought of all the connections and associations in the book in engineering terms: bolts, joints, gearwheels, rivets. I knew they wouldn't be visible to the reader, but also that they needed to ensure that the whole structure of the text would be internally stable. The first thing was the opposition between the world and its motion to the body, memory, death and the pursuit of immortality. That's why that juxtaposition happens on other levels, as well, as in the appearances by Copernicus and Vesalius. That's the main axis of the book. It may come as a surprise, but I wrote most of the book's parts in order. There were only a few sections that had to be rearranged in the final version.
J&G: What is the first section you gravitate toward when you visit a library or bookstore?
OT: Sale books! And after that psychology and religion.
J&G: You write that tyrants “want to create a frozen order, to falsify time’s passage.” Can you compare this enforced stasis to writing? In what ways do you think writing can work for or against this tyranny?
OT: I think that because literature is always seeking new points of view and always telling ancient stories afresh it keeps our minds curious, restless, ready to react and ask questions. Thanks to it we see the world in motion, and that's the only version of the world that's true. Nothing unsettles tyrants more than the idea that anything can happen.
J&G: What keeps you in motion, Olga?
OT: Plans, people, trips and all the things that demand writing.
J&G: What about a place keeps you still?
OT: Nature, especially my country garden.
J&G: We were interested in what other jobs you've taken inspiration from, aside from clinical psychology, that you might you want to reveal to us?
OT: Whenever I write books I study in great detail what I intend to describe. Often my characters have strange occupations. In House of Day, House of Night, the protagonist makes wigs, and when it came time to show this in the book, I went to this workshop where they make wigs and learned every detail of the process with great precision. It was similar with Flights--I studied the whole history of anatomy and the preservation of tissues, went to Amsterdam with that goal. Of course only a small fraction of what I learn makes it into the book. But that kind of research brings enormous pleasure. That might actually be the most pleasurable part of writing, that unhampered study of something that really fascinates you.
J&G: What objects do you take along with you during your own travels?
OT: I don't take anything special with me, but I do collect little things along the way: pieces of brick, pebbles, pine cones, seeds. That way I think I make my own travels real to myself, by collecting evidence that I was there. That's something the internet will never be able to do.
Review by Book Soup booksellers Gina Clark and Jonah Lipton
August 2018. Most experiences that fracture us also fracture in their recounting?
How can a reclaiming be a disavowing?
When we tell our stories, must they become less our own?
These are some of the notes I jotted down while and after reading Édouard Louis' phenomenal History of Violence: thoughts as fragmented and troubled as the autobiographical novel's events leave its author, narrator, and subject.
First, the facts, straight from the novel's jacket: "on Christmas Eve 2012, in Paris, the novelist Édouard Louis was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met." History of Violence recounts that night's events through Louis' voice, as well as the voices and eyes of others. It takes us from the safety of friendship to a bedroom that becomes the site of terrible violence. Through dehumanizing experiences in hospitals and police stations, to the working-class hometown where Louis once swore he'd never return.
As Louis – both author and protagonist – tells his story, he sees it reshaped in the words of others. He imagines his sister recounting the assault to her husband, replete with condescension, victim-blaming, and judgment. A police officer tells him she would have screamed as loud as she could. Louis is disturbed to find that others fixate on the ethnicity of his attacker, whose marginalized social position he can not help but feel sympathy towards.
After filing a police report at his friends’ urging, Louis is informed that his story now belongs to the state, and that he can not choose to remove himself from the proceedings. “I was at once,” he writes, “excluded from my own story and at the same time forcibly included, because they kept forcing me to talk, over and over again.” As the police interview continues, Louis ceases to recognize his story as his own; the questions he is asked make him describe his assault in terms he would never have chosen. When he reads back the resulting police report, even his own memories appear unrecognizable in the racist, xenophobic, homophobic language of the police.
In History of Violence, Louis expertly dramatizes the disconnect between oneself and one’s stories that is introduced by trauma. The way loss of subjectivity, connection, and agency lie at its terrible core. As Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his seminal work on PTSD and trauma recovery, The Body Keeps the Score, “trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens.” For Louis, who struggles to accept his reality as reality, who feels his real life must be happening elsewhere, that he is merely a spectator, who, in the midst of his assault, presses his face into peach detergent-scented bedsheets and thinks, “no one has ever seen a peach that smelled like that, this is not the scent of a peach but the idea of the scent of a peach,” the entire world is alien, is unreal, is fiction.
History of Violence is not an easy read, but it is a necessary, vivid, and compelling one. It was not an easy pick for Book Soup’s August Soup of the Month, but the moment I finished reading it, I knew it was the only one.
- Nadine Vassallo, General Manager, Book Soup
July, 2018. Who could have foreseen the sexy merman trend of 2017-18? (Our money was on centaurs.) We’ve got The Pisces, of course, The Shape of Water, Made for Love (okay, that’s a dolphin), that remake of Splash with Channing Tatum as the mermaid – is that still happening? Please let that still be happening.
Wise woman Rachel Ingalls, however, knew the appeal of escapist sea-hunks way back when she published Mrs. Caliban in 1982. The book, though briefly named one of the best contemporary American novels, has mostly been forgotten – and that’s a damn shame. Mrs Caliban has David Lynchian qualities in its gauzy, semi-realist vision of suburbia. Shockingly violent radio reports buzz in the background of scenes about the rising prices of avocados. Our protagonist, Dorothy, putters around her life mechanically, reflecting on the dull people she’s known and steadfastly ignoring her husband’s affair. Larry, the aforementioned antediluvian stud, appears suddenly in her kitchen to spice up her life.
The novella skips along at a brisk, beach-read pace from there, alternately hilarious and creepy, sexy and cynical. Dorothy swaddles herself in an off-kilter fantasy, which ends – as such things inevitably do – in tragedy. I picked this book up because of its striking cover, not expecting too much and I’ve reread it at least four times since then.
The Pisces, the masterful debut novel from Melissa Broder, is a mythological tale of a classic Odyssean siren – one set in a very recognizable Venice Beach in the time of Uber, Tinder, crystal shops, and trendy consumerism. Lucy, half-heartedly writing a dissertation interpreting the gaps in Sappho’s work and fresh off a breakup, moves to Venice to house-sit for her sister in a desperate attempt to run away from her self-destructive nature. She quickly realizes, however, that living in an oceanfront glass castle provides no relief from existing in a constant state of emptiness and heartache. But amidst frequent love addiction group meetings, meaningless hookups, and aimless walks along Abbot Kinney, Lucy meets an alluring man of the ocean who makes her question everything.
Broder’s signature voice – recognizable from her searingly candid and relatable essay collection So Sad Today – is insightful, uncomfortably visceral, and fantastically bizarre. Bridging magical realism, literary erotica, and philosophy, she explores the absurdity of human existence, cosmic connection, and society’s search for meaning in a way that will have you cringing and crying, laughing and hanging on every single word.
Does Lucy fall victim to the song of her siren? Can love, or the lack of it, kill? It won’t take you long to find out because you will not be able to put this gem of a book down. It's the introspective, deeply compelling, escapist story you didn't even know you needed. But watch out: it might leave you searching for a merperson of your own.
Pick both of these books up, and next time you’re heading to the beach, bring along an avocado, cute lingerie, and some antidepressants. You never know who you’re going to meet.
- Emma Diamond and Natalie Mattox, Book Soup Booksellers
July, 2018. Now back in print, Mrs. Caliban is "totally unforgettable" ( The New York Times Book Review) and "something of a miracle" ( The New Yorker)
June 2018. Trip certainly lives up to it's title, for it is just that - a trip - and like none I've ever been on. But do not be fooled by the subject matter, for this is not your ordinary 'drug memoir'.Philosophical, scientific, and deeply personal, Trip is as much the story of Lin's journey through his own psyche as it is that of psychedelic culture. This is not merely a book you should hand someone if you're trying to convince them to drop acid with you, but a truly fascinating exploration of the human condition in relation to creativity. Anyone interested in art, religion, death, language, the universe, plants, the mind, history, philosophy, overcoming depression, and of course, mind altering substances - will benefit from reading Trip.Whether you've had a plethora of your own experiences (good or bad) with psychedelics or you intend to stay away from them forever, there are revelations in these pages for all of us to discover. Tao Lin is no stranger to the written word having had published several novels, but with Trip he charts new territory entirely and not just as a person but as a writer as well. His background in fiction shines through with his aptitude for storytelling so well that at times when reading, I had to remind myself that this was not another work of Tao Lin fiction.The experiences chronicled in this book somehow made me simultaneously envy Lin and sigh a breath of relief because I am not him. I can't wait for all of the enlightening conversations I will have with people because of this book. Our minds are capable of extraordinary and seemingly impossible things if only we open them up a little wider than is comfortable. So go on, open yours, but do watch where you're walking. I wouldn't want you to Trip.- Molly Ash, Book Soup Bookseller
“I have been thinking...about the value of optimism while cities burn…. What good is endless hope in a country that never runs out of ways to drain you of it?”
May 2018. Ask anybody who knows my reading tastes and they’ll tell you that they were surprised that I picked up Hanif Abdurraquib’s brilliant essay collection—let alone that I became an evangelist for it. I am, in general, not a fan of writing about music. The genre tends to either extol the debauchery and excesses of its subject or dissect the workaday minutia of a creative practice. Neither approach holds my interest for long. Clever takes on culture, however? Now, that’s something I can get behind. And, that is precisely where Abdurraquib succeeds so wonderfully. Under the guise of music criticism, he delivers an incisive and entertaining critique of America’s perennial struggles with race and class.
Most of the culture criticism in here is deftly woven into a rock concert write-up or a new album review. The quote above, though, comes from one of the rare reprieves in which Abdurraquib largely jettisons the artifice and takes a moment to philosophize directly. Here he reflects on 2016 and how a reliance on Obama-era hope may have atrophied our grit in the face of reactionary politics. “My friends say I’ve gotten too cynical,” he continues, “and I suspect this might be true.” It’s easy to give up when the ship of state seems to no longer care about the daily struggles and dangers you face. Neither, though, is he “sold on pessimism as the new optimism.” The frisson between optimism and pessimism is the driving force that gives They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us it’s delicious punch. You have to press on even when you can’t find the strength to care. Or, if you prefer to think of it in Beckensian terms: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
It’s not all—or even mostly—raw existential meditation. The essays that define the collection are the ones that gesture towards a deeper chasm while showcasing the way tragedy and entertainment exist side-by-side. It is possible—indeed it is common—to, say, attend a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or to consider the pop-pornography of a Weeknd show while nursing a broken heart. Perhaps, you too, like Abdurraquib, have found yourself in a similar situation wondering “[w]hat it must be like to feel briefly full without considering if any emptiness might follow.” And, if so, you might understand why sometimes you just want to disappear into an earful of Carly Rae Jepsen and muse on nothing greater than the relative merits of “Boy Problems” versus “Call Me Maybe.”
The short essays in this collection will captivate you with their wit, wisdom, and candor. They’ll blindside you with truthbombs just as you’re settling into a comfortable pop culture moment. Most of all, they’ll leave you in awe, mumbling to yourself, Damn, how did he get here from there?
- Dan Lopez, Book Soup Bookseller
“The thing I think people get wrong about the act of the stunt is that it isn’t entirely narcissistic…. There is generosity in one who goes out of their way to look fly and raise the bar of the room they’re in.”
April 2018. “What if Odysseus came home to find Penelope was famous for her tapestries?”
Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage isn’t quite a retelling of The Odyssey, but the acclaimed author cites her childhood reading of the Greek myths as one inspiration behind the novel, which explores the dissolution of a marriage, the purpose of art, and the devastation of wrongful imprisonment.
We had the opportunity to discuss the novel with Jones via phone from her hotel room in Denver, where she was in the midst of a massive book tour (including a stop at Book Soup). An American Marriage, too, opens with a journey. In this case, it is a trip from Jones’ home city of Atlanta to Eloe, Louisiana – a trip that, in hindsight, feels fated to go terribly awry. Husband Roy and wife Celestial are in bed together when police burst into their hotel room, arresting Roy for a sexual assault he did not commit. In what feels like an unstoppable whirlwind, Roy is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison, becoming another of the approximately 1 in every 20 black men in Louisiana who are incarcerated (http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons/).
When someone goes to jail, Jones says, “they are taken out of their own story.” An American Marriage, then, gives Roy the opportunity to tell his. Through a series of intimate, revealing letters and shifting perspectives, both Roy and Celestial present their side of the story, which Jones was careful to keep in balance (“imagine Justice with her scales,” she says). We learn about Roy’s sage-like cellmate, about Celestial’s successful career in the arts, and eventually about the distance – and the other man – who come between them.
Jones credits writing the novel with changing her own perspective on guilt and innocence. Asked why she found it critical that Roy was not guilty of the crime for which he is imprisoned, she explains that it was part of an attempt to keep this balance intact. It was important to Jones that Roy and Celestial had “equal chances” at readers’ compassion and sympathy. If Roy had been guilty of a violent crime, she reasons, “it would shut the story down.”
Although research into mass incarceration was another source of inspiration behind the tale, Jones ultimately chose to restrict her novel’s exploration of life behind bars. The novel addresses some of the issues behind mass incarceration, such as pre-trial detention, but absent is any mention of the war of drugs (for more on the topic of mass incarceration in the United States, we recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). Jones was happy, she says, to leave out a lot of the information she uncovered, choosing to evoke her readers’ empathy with “feelings not facts.” The “minutiae of deprivation” Jones does include can be truly heartbreaking; the image of an incarcerated man desperate for a taste of fresh fruit – and the lengths he’ll go to get it – lingers.
While Celestial makes art in her husband’s image explicitly to “raise consciousness,” Jones says, “I try to engage with topics that I would like to see more of in the public conversation, but when you’re working on a novel, you can’t think about that. You can’t let your own desires outweigh [those of] the characters.” Jones cites the advice of a writing mentor who said, “write about people and their problems, not problems and their people” (words that have, at times, been posted above Jones’ writing desk). It’s clear that Jones has taken this wisdom to heart. An American Marriage never feels like an issue novel; instead, it dives deeply into Celestial and Roy’s relationship, at times producing an almost uneasy sense of intimacy, as if readers are listening in on the characters’ most private thoughts. Roy’s struggle to come home and Celestial’s conflict over whether to remain loyal are equally strong – and equally complicated. They remind us that we can never truly know, or judge, the circumstances of other people’s relationships.
Praised for the novel’s sense of both specificity and universality, Jones is quick to reply “all stories are universal.” It is by virtue of their specificity, she adds, that they resonate. “Sometimes, when people say a story is universal, it’s like they’re saying you’re being promoted out of your identity. Congratulations on no longer writing as an outsider!” With An American Marriage, Tayari Jones – who writes best in the early mornings, and keeps a small jar of dirt from Toni Morrison’s hometown on her desk – stakes her place among the makers of American myth.
March 2018. You may remember hearing the name Edan Lepucki a few years back when her debut novel, the post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction California debuted at number 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2014. But if you're expecting another post-apocalyptic tale from Lepucki in her second novel, Woman No. 17, you may be slightly disappointed. Woman No. 17 was published on May 9, 2017 and just came out in paperback this past month. While it is certainly a very different type of story than California, it has plenty of mystery, excitement, and plot twists - while still being rooted in a very realistic present day Los Angeles.Woman No. 17 is a masterfully woven story of two extremely different women, told from each of their points of view. Lady is a wealthy mother of two and writer who has recently separated from her husband, who is to blame for the lavish house in the hills in which she lives. Karl is understanding about the separation, at least at first, and agrees to move out of the mansion to give Lady some space. He tries over the course of the novel to win back her love and is continually supportive of his son and step-son, but Lady isn't quite sure what she wants from him, or from life, so they remain separated.With Karl gone, Lady realizes she needs help with her energetic toddler Devin so that she can have more time to write, and takes to Craigslist to find a nanny for him. She hires S, a young artist who seems, at first glance, very sure of herself. S moves into the guesthouse immediately, does an excellent job caring for Devin, and even befriends Lady, who likes having S around to confide in. S also becomes friendly with Seth, Lady's older son from a different father. Seth is a mute who has never spoken before, and S, always an artist, is fascinated by him. Lady is overprotective of Seth though, lashing out at anyone who tries to communicate with him using their "secret signs." Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it may seem and no relationship is easy to explain. Lepucki does a brilliant job of weaving the two stories together in a way that makes Woman No. 17 very hard to put down. Soon, tensions begin to build and the reader wonders whether or not Lady and Karl will get back together, what this S girl is really all about, and why Seth has never spoken a word.Lady's intense bond with Seth, combined with her stories about her turmoiled relationship with her own mother, make motherhood an underlying theme of the novel. Even S decides to dress and act like her mother for an "art project" only to border on destroying her own life. But don't be fooled, Woman No. 17 is about so much more than the ties between mother and child. It is about loss, love, starting over. It is about the past and the future. It is about not wanting to become your mother, and becoming her anyway, only to realize maybe she wasn't so bad. Or maybe she was. It's about ruining the ones you care about the most even when you do everything in your power to not allow that to happen. And it's about those people trying their hardest to forgive you.This one will grip you from the moment you begin it, begging you to stay up all night and finish it. Just when you think you know Lady and S, you will learn things about each of them that will shake you, shock you, and turn the whole story upside down. You might need to hire a nanny yourself to make time to read this book. Just be careful on Craigslist. Not everyone is who they seem.- Molly Ash, Book Soup Newsstand Coordinator
February 2018. I first discovered Kaveh Akbar several years ago when I read one of his poems that had been published in Tin House and was quickly blown away by his unique voice. Following that, I eagerly awaited the release of his first chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and got my hands on a copy as soon as I could. Within 24 hours it was absolutely destroyed with pen marks, post-it notes, and dog-eared pages. I read the whole thing probably ten times in that first day. The quality of Akbar's first poetry collection wowed me more than I even imagined it could - and I knew he was good going into it. But then I got greedy. A chapbook wasn't going to be enough for me. I needed more, because for me, poetry is sustenance. Poetry is air. Poetry is water. I need poetry - specifically really, really good poetry - in order to survive. And once I got a small taste of what Akbar had to offer, I knew I wouldn't survive without more of it for long. I wanted him to get a full book of poetry published. And I wanted that book in my hands immediately.
Well, fortunately for me, I didn't have to wait too long. Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Akbar's first full length poetry book, was published by Alice James Books on September 12, 2017. I bought it that day and got my shift covered at my bar job that night in order to read it. Poems are, generally speaking, much shorter than novels. A regular and more mentally stable person may not have needed an entire evening off work in order to casually read some poetry. But as I mentioned before, I need it in order to survive. And for me, nothing about Akbar's poetry was casual. It was special. It demanded my full attention. I had waited and waited for this book and I would not wait another moment to surrender myself to it.
I opened this book with extreme caution. I was very careful about which moment I chose to begin it, because I knew it was going to take me awhile to get through. I was going to read each line of each poem very slowly, and more than once. I also knew it was going stir up some emotions in me that I might not be fully prepared for. It might make me feel things I wasn't ready to or didn't want to ever feel. But that's the power of poetry. And nothing else in this world - at least nothing that I have encountered as of yet - is quite as potent.
The definition of a good poem, to me, is one that I don't know how to talk about with anyone. It is one whose lines I have to close my eyes after reading, and then open them back up in order to re-read. It is something so personal, so raw, so human, and so intense that it is borderline embarrassing for me to admit these sensations out loud. I feel like I am submitting to a force greater than myself and greater than the universe when a poem really penetrates me this way. Every poem in Calling A Wolf A Wolf does this to me, and that is a remarkable feat. Kaveh Akbar was certainly not the first poet I've ever read whose work has resonated with me so deeply, and he will not be the last. But he is certainly one of the youngest and most modern to do so. When I first discovered that he was the same age as I am, I felt some mild shame and jealousy. I got past that real fast though, and now simply feel lucky to be alive during the time he is around and being published, and to have access to his work.
The subject matter of this collection is not easy to define because with real poetry, it never is. There are nods to a religious upbringing as well as defiance against one. There are mentions of family bonds and of course, of love. Throughout, there is some major growing up going on, and a little bit of an identity crisis. There is existentialism and doubt and hope and wonder. There are gender issues, racial issues, political ideas, and unfinished thoughts. There is self-hate and self-love and complete and total honesty on each and every page. There are bright lights and dark, winding tunnels. Take a deep breath after each poem, dear reader, because I promise you, the next one will be an entirely separate journey through Akbar's psyche as well as through your own.
Calling A Wolf A Wolf is for everyone. It is for poetry snobs, it is for people who want to get into poetry but don't know much about it. It is for the young and the old. It is for academics and scholars and it is for factory-workers, farmers, bartenders, teachers, parents, lawyers, doctors, actors, directors, 7-11 workers, singles, couples, the mentally ill, drug-addicts, racists, the open-minded, the closed-minded, street-walkers, and transients. It is for those so against poetry that you have to read it to them aloud with their fingers in their ears, screaming it until they cannot actively not listen. It is for everyone. CAWAW is for huma
This book is nothing short of brilliant. If you discover one new poet this year, please let it be Kaveh Akbar. If you only have enough money for one poetry collection, please choose this one. Trust me even if you have no good reason to. Because really, today and here and now, what good reason do you have not to?
- Molly Ash, Newsstand Coordinator, Book Soup
JANUARY 2018. “Inside a body, there is no light. A massed wetness pressing in on itself, shapes thrust against each other with no sense of where they are… Anything could be inside.”
So begins Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. To work your way through this audacious, uneasy-making novel is to explore a familiar – and troubling – landscape. Our main character, known only as A, divides her time between a job and a relationship that are equally unfulfilling. Her home life does anything but provide respite, as her roommate seems to be appropriating A’s life, item by item, as her own: her boyfriend, her makeup, her habits, her identity. Weird goings-on, meanwhile, start to infiltrate A’s limited universe: Neighbors disappear, leaving their front door wide open. Cryptic messages and fliers start showing up around town. Entire supplies of Kandy Kakes – a ubiquitous, chemically-engineered product that resembles a Hostess Cupcake – vanish from store shelves overnight. That these events are all connected is obvious, but A can’t quite put her finger on why. At least, not yet.
The escapes from the subtly chaotic outside world available to A are limited to television – she watches a lot of television – and Wally’s Supermarket. At this bizzaro chain store, the staff wear giant, unnerving mascot heads, and the aisles are organized to “inspire creativity” in their customers’ shopping experience – or possibly drive them insane. At home, A’s viewing habits are dialed in on a strange game show with built-in, unsettling real-life consequences, and punctuated with ubiquitous, lengthy, and oddly creepy commercials for Kandy Kakes. She’s also haunted by the news story of a local man who, inexplicably, became fixated on frozen meat. Before she knows it, A is acting out in ways that seem propelled by all of these influences.
Who – or what – is gnawing away at our heroine? Blame could be placed on her overbearing roommate, her emotionally disengaged boyfriend, or any factor of modern life: big corporations; the dissolution of urban centers; trash TV specifically or The Media, more broadly. Kleeman wisely leaves much to the interpretation of the reader. This is perhaps what makes You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine a perfect novel for the new millennium. It is part amateur detective story, part modern horror, and tinged throughout with a restrained, never smarmy sense of humor. Moreover, A makes for a strikingly relatable heroine. Directionless and fragile though she is, she’s incredibly compelling and, at times, quite funny. The “shiftless millennial” is already an established archetype, and A embodies it; how Kleeman turns that archetype on its head will surprise you.
The search for meaning is at the heart of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Kleeman’s heroine longs to find purpose and connection in her life, and finding either is a tall order when one’s own body is an uncomfortable, unknowable place. “It’s no surprise, then,” she reasons, “that we care most for our surfaces.” Fortunately, for her readers, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is spooky, engaging and absolutely one-of-a-kind novel that is both finely crafted on the outside and richly complex on the inside.
- Kieran Kenney, Book Soup Supervisor
December 2017. As I write, a raucous party is blaring on across the street, in a tower in which I once hoped to buy a condo (never happening now – thanks, inflated LA real estate market!). I also worked there for a notorious art dealer in the go-go 80s. Why am I bringing this up? In the old days, I would have got my rubber t-shirt and my freak on and rushed over to see what was happening. Now? More than pleased to have my dozy cats on my lap, contemplating Joan Juliet Buck’s The Price of Illusion.
Being a sucker for memoirs of privilege, especially as relating to the publishing world (see Katharine Graham, Maeve Brennan, Caroline Blackwood, et.al.), I devoured Ms. Buck’s when it was published in hardcover earlier this year. Her glittering pals are many and various, owing to her father’s profession as a film producer whose prosperity was ineffably tied to the actor Peter O’Toole and, to a larger extent, the Falstaffian writer/director, John Huston. (Ms. Buck seems to remain close to the Huston family; thank goodness for her.)
After reading Tina Brown's recently released Vanity Fair Diaries, however, Ms. Buck’s misadventures down the rabbit hole of fashion mags seem less a dream, more a nightmare. Both women were raised in incredible privilege, it is true. But, while Ms. Brown was more or less imported to be a captain of culture at the failing reiteration of Vanity Fair, with the negotiating skills of the same, Ms. Buck was appointed the first American editor of Vogue France. Similarly charged with reviving the magazine’s prospects, she was instead met with scorn and gaslighting. Where Ms. Brown was rewarded with bonuses and care of her ailing parents for life, Ms. Buck was sent off to fake rehab and exile from Conde Nast.
This is not to say that Ms. Buck did not make lemonade from her misfortune. After a further scourging from the company she trusted, she has remade herself into an actress, speaker on The Moth, and accomplished writer unfettered by corporate tentacles. I enjoyed her memoir even more the second time round, and admire both Ms. Buck and Ms. Brown for being incredibly strong, accomplished female voices. Me, I'll hang here with my dozy cats.
- Amelia Cone, Book Soup Bookseller
November 2017. Reading this book is like being blindfolded and led by the hand—round and round, over a hill, along a long, straight bit—then spun in a circle or two. You have no clue where you’re going. You’re unsure why you’re going there. But from page one, you trust no one more than Sarah Gerard to be the person holding your hand and guiding you. (And if you’re anything like me, you will be shaken and literally struck with awe when she brilliantly removes the blindfold at the end and shows you the entire path on which you traveled.)
This is a book of essays, but it parts from the immediacy of the essay form. Rather than gathering pieces than are temporally close to each other (as most essayists seem to do), Gerard is comfortable letting her collection span the length of her entire life so far. Her essays are about widely-varying topics that seem often deeply unrelated; she writes about the tangled history of the Unity Church and growing up in it, about homelessness in St. Petersburg, about a bird sanctuary in the Florida Keys as it falls apart in slow motion.
While Gerard herself is heavily present in some essays and nothing but a background figure in most, we get to see her voice grow and mature as she ages over the course of the collection— and this is absolutely where she is most brilliant. Late in the book, we see an adult Gerard cope with the reality of a loved one’s illness and death with an understanding that the teenage version of her (who we’ve witnessed taking ecstasy, hooking up, and trying to figure out what it means to love someone at all) could not have fathomed.
I’m obsessed with this book because Gerard doesn’t over-concern herself with the perpetual essayist’s struggle of the political versus the personal. She is wholly both, every step of the way, merely by shifting in subtle ways the tone of her voice. Because of this, we get to grow with her, and come to her understandings with her, and question things with her. A keen reporter and memoirist, Gerard invites us to be these things right along with her. When she asks a question, you really get the sense that she doesn’t yet know the answer—as if she wrote this book in real time while she had every experience and underwent every interview in it.
The most perfect blends of boldness and subtly that I’ve ever read, the essays of Sunshine State are like well-worn favorite songs to me—whenever I think of one, I immediately remember exactly where I was and what I felt when I first read it. I’ll continue to re-read this book again and again until the record skips, and I’ll continue to cherish the nostalgia Gerard has given me for experiences I never actually had. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you do the same.
- Afton Montgomery, Book Soup Bookseller
October 2017. Ah, fall. The perfect time of year. The trees change color, the first frosts appear, and the air smells like mulled wine. Okay, fine, this is Los Angeles. Fall – time to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte and maybe wear a sweater sometimes (but only at night).
For me, the best thing about fall was always seeing my best friend again. We’d giggle about summer flings and classmate crushes, skip school to go record shopping, and reminisce about all the times we’d had. We have some incredible stories – like that one time we took acid together and she went skinny dipping, disappeared, and came back literally possessed by the devil.
(Oops! It could happen to anyone.)
Anyway, the real best thing about fall? IT’S FINALLY HALLOWEEN, MAN. TIME TO GET SCARY AF! My Best Friend’s Exorcism is, hands-down, the best thing to read while you’re sitting indoors on the 31st with all the lights out, trying to ignore the furious knocking on your door. Is it children? Is it the restless, unholy spirits of the dead? (It’s children; get off the couch and give them some of your candy stash, you misanthrope).
This ghoulish offering from Grady Hendrix is like the grown-up Goosebumps book of your dreams… or the Baby-Sitters Club book of your nightmares. Fifteen-year-old Abby is going through the most horrible adolescent turmoil: not does this boy like me? or even will I regret this whole wardrobe in ten years? but how long do BFFs last? does my best friend even care about me? why is she acting so weird? is she like, totally possessed by a demon?
(She is. Like, totally.)
This book is SO MUCH FUN. I was swept away on the wave of Go-Go’s references, lifelong friendships, and demon-induced vomiting. Gretchen (Abby’s possessed friend) wreaks highly creative mayhem on her high school, while Abby’s attempts to fix things and win her best friend back make everything worse. Hendrix really nails the free-fall anxiety of adolescence: the way we’ve all wondered whether our friends really like us, or if they roll their eyes, make fun of our outfits, and accuse us of being Satanic psychopaths the second we’ve left the room.
It’s not just the normal horrors of high school Abby contends with – there is plenty of demonic action here, including at least one scene that would make Sam Raimi squeal with delight. Yet despite the blood, guts, and psychological trauma, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is truly about the endless, fragile friendship between Abby and Gretchen. I was in tears by the end – and they weren’t tears of terror.
It’s rare to find a book that so deftly straddles the line between school year nostalgia and chilly October horror. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is equal parts spooky and sweet, making it the perfect book to take to the still-sunny beaches in LA – or to the cemetery in the darkest hours of Halloween night. Grab your fave fun-size candy, light some candles, and crank up the Phil Collins – it’s time for thrills, chills, and warm fuzzy feelings with Abby, Gretchen, and Satan himself.
- Emma Diamond, Book Soup Bookseller
September 2017. Brontez Purnell is something of a secret for now, but not one you're likely to keep. Seriously, ask your artist friends. They probably know about him already. They may have even attended a show by his queer punk rock band, or a performance art piece. They're possibly among the first to know the pleasure of his novel Since I Laid My Burden Down, or its predecessor Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger? - Two novels that are not for the faint of heart, and too queer, too black, too frank about sex and sexuality for most publishers. So thank you to Feminist Press for making sure this voice doesn't get lost although Purnell strikes me as someone who is unbothered by such things and would write anyway, if ten people, or ten thousand read his words. That's where booksellers come in, and trust us on this one - you should read this novel!
Purnell's protagonist DeShawn is wickedly funny, unflinching, and honest, in that way that only people who have nothing else to lose can be. Having grown up in a small town, he kicked and scratched and crawled over the bodies of others to get out, making it all the way to a new life in San Francisco. It's that call home for a death in the family that reminds him and by extension, us, that we'll always be that kid from Alabama, Kansas, etc, and that while we can reinvent ourselves any number of ways, somebody, somewhere - maybe an aunt or a secret lover, will always know the truth.
This novel is truly a discovery and possibly outside of your own reading comfort zone, but in a volatile year like this one, perhaps it should be.
- Dan Graham, Assistant Promotional Director
August 2017. Transparency is rare.
Embarrassment is real.
We are more alike than you think.
These are some of the conclusions I made after reading Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.
Families are messy.
Your body may someday betray you.
Just because he's cute doesn't mean he's a catch.
I needed to read this book in order to have these mini-revelations. Irby’s words evoke honesty and introspection in a way only she can: with a massive amount of expletives and definitely too much information (but low key - not so low key - that's why I kept reading). It's extremely refreshing to read a voice that resembles the one in your head. You know what I mean, the one that jumps to conclusions, passes judgments, gets really caught up in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, that voice. Irby shows us exactly who she is, the good, the bad, the extremely uncomfortable.
Parents are human, flawed, and sometimes a burden.
I can be really good at a job I don't like.
This collection of essays was my first introduction to Irby’s personality and style. Her humor is dark and slightly offensive. You will, however, find yourself nodding when she goes on rants about friends who become parents and treat their children like fragile experiments. And being fat and dating the guy from Best Buy. One of my favorite essays “you don't have to be grateful for sex” recounts some of her past hook ups with men who deemed themselves “out of her league" but still did not hesitate to get all up in her pants. Somehow, these so called “attractive guys” believed their mediocre presence was a gift sent from above. As a plus size black girl, not only did I think “same”, but I also thought “please let them know we out here pulling D’Angelo circa How does it feel? type men in these streets! Sure it might be just for a night or a few nights but dammit, we out here!” She lets us into personal moments when she tells us about her relationships with her parents and how she never knows where to place them, even after death. We meet her cat and arch nemesis Helen Keller, the spawn of Satan and destroyer of favorite things. And we follow her as she experiences relationships that inevitably lead her to her wife, the person she chooses to compromise for.
Truthfully she is all of us. She came from a messy dysfunctional family (same). She has had failed relationships and desperate hook ups (same). She is overweight and deals with health issues that sometimes make sitting down and binging trash TV sound one million times better than anything outdoors (almost same, but same). She has allowed love and relationships to change her routine, but fundamentally not change her (to be determined). And even though we've never met in real life, I feel like I know her.
- Tameka Blackshir, Book Soup Bookseller
July 2017. Ok, I admit it. I picked up Michelle Latiolais's She originally just because I liked the cover. I have an affinity for palm trees, for street signs, and for all things LA. And to me, the cover of this book screamed LA. So yes. I do that thing you're not supposed to do: I judge books by their covers. But with this one, I'm sure glad I did.After reading She twice, I can say that I like the cover even more. It is as if you are seeing the world through the main characters eyes. The girl who is mostly referred to throughout the book as She (a reminder to all of us writers that sometimes the most simple possible title is the best possible title) is a fifteen year old who ran away from the home where she was badly abused. She ran to, of course, the city so many of us run to: Los Angeles. When I came here I may have been twenty-five and not fifteen, but I was certainly still running away from something. The palm tree, the street sign, and the shockingly blue sky on this book's cover paint a scene not unlike the one She saw upon her arrival in the fictional (though stunningly realistic) city of Los Angeles, CA.She meets all kinds of different people along her journey. Some who are there to help her along, some with selfish and rotten intentions. Some who painfully remind her of her dysfunctional family members, and some who teach her that not everyone out there will. The girl in this story is young, but you need not be to enjoy this book. In fact I think it's better enjoyed when one is decades away from fifteen so that reading this will aid in looking back and saying "Ahh, yes, I remember what that felt like" and thanking your lucky stars that you don't feel that way anymore.The word 'fiction' on the cover is true: this is not a memoir or a biography. It is not a true story. But to me, it's not quite a novel either. Nor is it short stories. It is written in a form entirely new to me, actually: a series of stories that tell a story when read in chronological order, but can stand alone on their own just as well. When I pick up the book and open to a random page and read that page, it is a different experience than if I were to do that with your every day novel. It's like reading long-form poetry, every word and every sentence singing its own heartbreaking song that together make up a damn beautiful album.Latiolais's characters are raw and relatable, and at times funny. This gritty and honest coming of age story is so much more than that. It is an anthem for men and women, the old and the young alike. Love it or hate it, Los Angeles as a state of mind shines brightly through every poetic line, letting us know that your geographical location may not be everything, but it will dictate certain details of your life no matter how hard you fight it. She is not just about a city though, it is about the institution of family, the idea that running away from where you came from doesn't mean you didn't come from there in the first place. It's about learning not to blame your parents for how messed up your head is, and giving trust to complete strangers - though that doesn't mean they'll ever stop being strange.I absolutely devoured this book, and it is one that I am certain I will again and again.- Molly Ash, Book Soup Newsstand Manager
June 2017. The review I want to write: I read this book and I liked this book. A lot. I finished it in two sittings and the fact that I went into it blind cranked my review up to an 11/10.
Still not convinced? Fine. Here’s the review I should write: Dark Matter grabbed me and wouldn't let go -- but at no point did I want off Blake Crouch's wild ride.
Once upon a time, Jason Dessen was on track to become a world-renowned scientist... until he had a kid. Now, he's a father, husband, and professor at a local university; for all intents and purposes, Jason has a good life. But he always wonders about the life he could have had. (I mean, who doesn't?) One night his life takes an unexpected turn when he's abducted, taken to an abandoned warehouse, and knocked unconscious before waking up in an unfamiliar world surrounded by unfamiliar people. Weird, right? But those unfamiliar people know him... and they're congratulating him! Weirder, right?! It gets so much weirder; believe me.
Yes, this book is science fiction, but don't let that turn you off. It reads like an ordinary human thrown into a science fiction world, which is a great way of putting you, the reader, into his shoes. Just when you think Jason is getting a hold of whatever situation he is currently in, and you think you have this book figured out, it takes an unexpected twist into something weirder and crazier! But the good kind of weird and crazy.
If you've gotten this far into my review, then I fear I may have said too much. But this book has it all. Give it a shot, but be sure you don't have any upcoming plans because Dark Matter has no (figurative) breaks. Or real ones for that (Dark) matter.
- Andres, Book Soup Bookseller
April 2017. I first discovered Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet completely by accident. I was actually looking for one of his better-known books. This was when I still lived in New York and was given to taking long walks between the various bookstores on lower Manhattan. I’d wandered into a tiny used bookshop off of Broadway, around the corner from that other, more famous used bookstore. I’d come to this particular shop in the past and had valued their well-curated selection, but on that particular day the only book by Isherwood that they had on their shelves was Prater Violet. I’d never heard of it, but I picked it up and started reading anyway:
“Mr. Christopher Isherwood?”
“You know, we’ve been trying to contact you ever since yesterday afternoon.” The voice at the other end of the wire was a bit reproachful.
“I was out.”
“You were out?” (Not altogether convinced.)
“Oh...I see…” (A pause, to consider this. Then, suddenly suspicious.) “That’s funny, though...Your number was always engaged. All the time.”
“Who are you?” I asked, my tone getting an edge on it.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Imperial Bulldog Pictures. I’m speaking for Mr. Chatsworth…. By the way, were you in Blackpool any time during 1930?”
“There must be some mistake…” I got ready to hang up on him. “I’ve never been to Blackpool in my life.”
“Splendid!” The voice uttered a brisk little business laugh. “Then you never saw a show called Prater Violet?”
“Never. But what’s that got to to do with…?”
“It folded up after three nights. But Mr. Chatsworth likes [...]”
I was hooked. The writing was brisk, the characters fresh, the dialogue snappy, and the story didn’t waste any time in announcing itself. I bought the book and starting reading it right away on the train home.
Years later, Prater Violet remains my favorite novel. This slim volume is Isherwood at his best. It’s the story of a man named Christopher Isherwood—a fictionalized version of the author—who has been strong-armed into writing a romantic comedy with a famed Viennese director named Friedrich Bergmann. The pay is good and Christopher likes the work, though he quickly comes to realize that his primary role is to act as a sounding board for the eccentric Bergmann. This is 1930’s England and the specter of World War II looms large on the horizon. Bergmann’s wife and children are back in Vienna as the Nazi war machine marches on. Meanwhile, in England Bergmann tries to make the best of the situation by putting all his energies into adapting an unabashedly schmaltzy story about a young girl selling violets in Vienna’s famed Wiener Prater.
What drew me to the book all those years ago is the same thing that keeps bringing me back even today. It’s the way Isherwood foreshadows the horrors of the war years through a deceptively light story. This is not a heavy book, but it gestures towards some truly terrifying implications. You can read it as a light, charming tale or you can brood upon it as a historical parable. The novel works equally well on both registers. Regardless of how you choose to read it, though, I’m confident that you’ll want to read it and reread it over and over again, like I have.
- Dan Lopez, Book Soup Supervisor
March 2017. In a world where the rights and lives of transgender people are becoming increasingly visible, few books are as timely and important as Meredith Russo’s debut novel, If I Was Your Girl. Amanda is a typical transgender girl: knowing her true gender from a young age, she completes her transition from male to female by the time she is seventeen. After being assaulted in a public restroom, she decides she wants a fresh start, so she moves to a rural southern town to live with her father. It’s easy for her to make friends and find a boyfriend in a place where there’s no chance anyone will recognize her from before her transition. Living stealth (hiding her transgender history), however, takes a toll on her in a way she didn’t expect, and she yearns to share her secret with her friends and boyfriend even though she knows it isn’t safe. After her previous experiences, Amanda is understandably terrified to come out, afraid of the violence and ridicule that transgender women have experienced throughout history. When the truth finally does come to light, however, she learns that real friends are those who can see beyond her past and love her as she is in the present.
While much of the transgender experience involves cisgender (non-trans) people working to understand and respect trans people’s lives and identities, Russo takes this idea a step further by showing how Amanda’s transition affects her parents. Though her father does his best to support her, he does slip up. Coming in late one night, Amanda’s heart is shattered when he, half-asleep, calls her by her birth name. Many transgender people would react immediately with anger or sadness, but Russo shows Amanda taking a moment to understand, to be compassionate, and to give a little for her father. Similarly, when Amanda’s mother tells her, “I miss my son,” it opens up an honest and loving conversation instead of a rift between them. These moments are beautiful illustrations of how a family, even in the face of a child’s transition, can love and support each other.
Russo’s straightforward presentation of the simple facts of a transgender person’s life is masterful. Through flashbacks, some of these experiences are highlighted: as a child, Amanda is confused by her father’s anger over a story she wrote about the woman she would grow up to be; as a teenager, she comes out to her mother and therapist after trying to kill herself. As Amanda’s story progresses, though, flashes of hope come through, from her first meeting with other transgender people to her positive relationship with her mother to her gender confirmation surgery. Russo’s prose leads the reader through a gamut of emotions, from fear and confusion to love and joy. She highlights the difficult parts as well as the wonderful parts of being transgender in a way that normalizes the experience. Amanda is truly relatable, because her dreams and desires are the same as everyone else’s: she wants to live happily as her authentic self, free from violence and fear.
Amanda’s story is not an unfamiliar one: a mind-boggling 45% of transgender people attempt suicide. If I Was Your Girl highlights this important fact, but also something greater: it is possible for transgender people to live happily, and it is possible for their families to love and support them through the process. For anyone who has ever been curious about the trans experience, who has a transgender friend or family member, or who is transgender themself, this book is essential.
Click here to donate to the Trans Lifeline, a transgender specific crisis hotline: https://www.translifeline.org/
Click here to donate to the Transgender Law Center: https://transgenderlawcenter.
February 2017. I was an angsty nineteen-year-old atheist when I first read The Master and Margarita upon the recommendation of an angsty twenty-two-year-old boy whom I thought I was in love with. I didn't know what love or atheism were back then - no matter how religiously or politically informed or how "beyond my years" I thought I was - but I enjoyed the novel thoroughly enough that it stuck with me for years and I returned to it as a still-confused-but-about-
different-things adult. I still may not know much about love, and I still certainly have a lot of questions about my own existentialism and whether or not the powers people often refer to as "Satan" or "God" may exist, and I still, now, snuggle this novel tight against me as I sleep after a night curled up reading it. Because The Master and Margarita is just that type of book - the type that doesn't necessarily help answer any of your questions about life, but simply lets you know that you are not alone in your wondering. Other people are looking for answers, too, and this book is not about learning the answers but rather about the questions and learning more constructive ways to ask them. Yes, both times I read it I was left more confused and with more questions about myself and about the world around me than before, yet both times I was left thankful for that.
The Master and Margarita was written in Russian by Mikhail Bulgakov sometime between 1928 and 1940, but wasn’t published until 1967. It is a satire of sorts, making groundbreaking political statements while simultaneously attempting to investigate the deepest complexities of the human psyche. Plus there's a talking cat who likes to drink martinis, which is obviously the mark of a great novel, no? Most who have read it consider it to be classic Russian literature and one of the all-time greatest pieces of the 20th Century, though I have, surprisingly, found that even in literary circles it is not widely regarded as such and this is typically only due to the fact that, for whatever reason, many people haven't even heard of it at all.
The novel alternates between two settings (1930s Moscow and The Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate) but does so in an extraordinarily simplistic way. It centers around the plot line that Satan appears in Moscow disguised as a professor and wreaks havoc on the city, along with his "crew" (including the talking cat, Behemoth). Satan, or the "professor," is, of course, portrayed mostly as an evil being throughout, but he brings up many questions about skepticism which are worth contemplating and tends to specifically target the "non-believers." In one of my favorite scenes of the first part, Satan hosts a magic show at The Variety Theatre, satirically representing the wealth, vanity and greed that Bulgakov no doubt saw beginning to swallow the Soviet around him. One of the main characters, The Master himself, is a self-deprecating author who actually ends up burning an entire manuscript of his own historical novel about Christ, following multiple rejections which resulted in his inexplicable despair. One cannot help but wonder if these experiences were not loosely based on Bulgakov's own.
In the second part, we are introduced to the mysterious Margarita, who is The Master's lover and who continues to love and devote herself to him even though she believes him to be dead. Margarita is a fascinating and strong central female character, and it is actually through her interactions with The Master that we are able to gain a better understanding of him.
I highly recommend The Master and Margarita to the highly religious and the skeptics alike. It can serve as either a fantastic introduction to Russian literature or a beautiful addition to ones literary arsenal. I will leave you with one piece of advice and that is this: If you are nineteen when you first read this, do yourself a favor and read it again sometime. Our lives and our minds, much like the plot of a complex novel such as this one, have the tendency to change in surprising ways.
- Molly Ash, Book Soup Bookseller
January 2017. We’ve considered making James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time a book of the month for a while now. Originally published in 1963, it’s since been discussed in conversations about Black Lives Matter and its recent protests. In August, Scribner published an anthology titled, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, which features contemporary writers responding to many the same issues that Baldwin raised.
Despite these conversations, I’ve found it hard to describe exactly what The Fire This Time, a collection of two epistolary essays, accomplishes, perhaps because I have such a love for Baldwin’s fiction and perhaps because in this confusing era, I am seeking direction and what Baldwin gives us instead is experience.
In the second and longer letter (from a “region of my mind”) Baldwin describes his experiences as a young preacher, a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and, finally, his (and America’s) position at “the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. . .Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” By this third section, Baldwin describes a bereft society eerily similar to our own, but the prescription for healing remains vague.
Maybe this is the challenge of writing about Baldwin’s non-fiction. He forces you to examine what’s in your own hands, to question yourself. There are no easy answers when the question is you, your responsibilities, your experience. In Raoul Peck’s upcoming film I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says, “There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. . . the white population of this country’s got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger it means you need it, and you’ve got to find out why and the future of the country depends on that.” He offers both question and condemnation.
I rue the absence of Baldwin’s thoughtful, brave, and articulate discourse on our country. Intelligent, contemplative commentary now is a chimera. Artists and activism are further denigrated, subjugated to either/or slots. Don’t you be creative, powerful and tell me what I don’t want to hear. Still, what are we to do?
If fiction can deliver a more poignant message, a more useful compulsion than non-fiction, then we should look to Baldwin’s stories for our mandates. I can tell you easily what Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about: listening. It’s about the black experience. It’s about addiction. It’s about brothers. It’s about music. It’s about discovering what our closest kin really are. Late in the story, Sonny, a jazz musician struggling with heroin addiction says to his brother, the narrator,
It’s terrible sometimes, inside. . .that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
A clearer instruction can rarely be found. Later, Sonny’s brother watches him play piano for (seemingly) the first time and thinks,
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.. . .I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
In Baldwin’s fiction, you are the character, we, they, that’s empathy, that’s experience, that of reading, that of understanding, and, in either his fiction or The Fire Next Time, Baldwin provides us the mandate we crave and, ultimately, that we get—listen carefully, everything is in our hands.
- Marion Bright, Book Soup General Manager
December 2016. I'll be frank with you; I loved this book! I couldn't put it down and I became quite fond of Frank, Alice, and Mimi - three people thrown together by genetics, love, admiration, and the need to turn in a book - the advance of which has long been spent.
Be Frank With Me is a very sweet story about a mother and her very unique son. It's also about the pressures we put on ourselves to look after each other, and to prosper at work, and how you live when you feel like you're failing at both. I found it to be the perfect antidote to a pretty crazy year, one in which antagonism seemed to mainfest like actual air! This pretty little Tiffany box of a book was a great escape.
- Dan Graham, Assistant Promotional Director
November 2016. The immigrant story is as old as America. And it’s one we’re generally familiar with: somebody leaves everything they know behind to scratch out a hardscrabble new life in the land of opportunity for themselves and for their family. They prosper. Their children live wealthier lives. They assimilate. And the tapestry of America takes on a richer pattern, a grander breadth.
The Wangs Vs the World is not that story.
True enough, Jade Chang’s remarkable debut shares many of the classic immigrant story motifs, but it turns those conventions on their ear. Charles Wang is the scion of a landed mainland family living in exile in Taiwan following Mao’s revolution. He’s just starting out in business, but dreams of more than simply taking over the family urea factory. (Yes, urea as in urine. Turns out it’s in a surprising number of product!) He dreams of making it big and so with little more than his business acumen and gumption, he takes a gamble on America. The gamble pays off. At least for a little while. Charles builds a cosmetics empire, but when his hubris comes up against the 2008 financial crisis, Charles loses everything he’s worked for. America was a mistake, Charles reasons. With what little he has left, he resolves to go back to China and reclaim the land that the communists took from his family decades earlier. The need to reclaim his patrimony takes on epic importance as Charles faces the realities of his escalating failure. But before he can do battle with the communists, Charles first needs to reunite his far-flung progeny.
What follows is a road trip from Los Angeles to New York State as Charles, along with his children’s stepmother Barbra, collects his two youngest children from schools that he can no longer afford. Grace, the youngest, is a fashion blogging teen, nursing a grudge over being sent to boarding school in the first place and flirting with the idea of killing herself rather than enduring the indignity of her lost privilege. Her brother Andrew, the handsome, good-natured middle child, spends his time at college pining for true love while honing his stand-up set. Saina, the eldest, is coping with her own devastating turn of fortune. A recent art world “it” girl, she’s cloistered herself away from the Manhattan art scene she used to revel in to nurse the dual wounds of a disastrous show and a two-timing fiancé. It’s at her farmhouse that Charles intends to bring the family together again.
A family road trip may be just what Charles needs to buoy his spirits, but for Barbra it’s Hell on wheels. While her two youngest stepchildren simper and snipe their way across the continent in the backseat of their dead mother’s powder blue Mercedes station wagon and Charles hectors his lawyer via cell phone to secure the family land, Barbra is forced to reevaluate all the choices that have brought her to this moment. Is this really the life she signed up for when she abandoned her hard-working parents in Taiwan to scoop up the recently widowed Charles Wang all those years ago? And, now, faced with financial calamity, is it time for Barbra to reinvent herself yet again—this time away from the Wangs?
The Wangs Vs. the World is both a road trip novel and an immigrant story, and it does neither of them in ways that you would expect. That’s the book’s great strength. Despite the looming uncertainty, the Wangs never fail to support each other. Their love for one another and their shared sense of we’re-in-this-together dominate the story as their misadventures take them from moneyed Los Angeles to bucolic upstate New York and beyond. It’s this sense of filial devotion that perhaps reads most like the classic immigrant tales we’re used to reading. No matter what, the Wangs are going to stick together. They’re not going to let American ambition or Chinese bureaucracy stand in the way of their happiness.
I could go on. I still haven’t mentioned the humor—this is a funny book! Nor have I talked about Chang’s use of untranslated Chinese to immerse the reader in the world of the Wangs. But as jokes are best when not explained and road trips are memorable for the journey and not the destination, The Wangs Vs. the World is a book properly experienced firsthand.
-Dan Lopez, Author and Book Soup Bookseller
October 2016. Can you remember the last good fever dream you had? That uneasy sense of displacement, of things at once totally strange and vaguely familiar, of a world that adheres to its own set of rules yet not ones that we can so simply grasp? Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is a hallucination of the darkest kind, one that will grip you like vines and worm its way into your mind until you have no thoughts, no memories except for the ones that it wants for you.
This story benefits the reader most by the least amount of information he/she has diving in, so I will keep my summary short. Some time ago, maybe thirty years, maybe longer, an unspecified part of America's coast was taken back by nature. No one quite knows what happened. All we know is that a barrier appeared, surrounding this territory and cutting it off from the larger world outside. The American government quickly dubbed this "Area X" and created a mysterious new organization called the Southern Reach to observe and investigate it.
Over the decades the government has so far sent in eleven separate expeditions. The first brought back reports of a lush landscape seemingly untouched by man, save for the remnants of an old lighthouse. The second committed mass suicide within. The third turned on each other in a blazing firefight from the guns they brought with them. Each expedition following ended in some unforeseen tragedy, no members returning alive save for the eleventh, who left Area X, but only as mere husks of their former selves, until an aggressive cancer manifested and took them all.
Here we follow the twelfth expedition, composed of four unnamed women, experts in their respective fields. There is the surveyor, a militaristic woman with trust issues; the anthropologist, an empathetic and curious woman; the psychologist, the team leader harboring information about the territory and their mission; and the biologist, our impersonal point of view.
From page one it is apparent that nothing is what it seems. Through the biologist's inner narrative a portrait is painted of a dark Eden filled with bleak visions, creeping madness, and unimaginable terrors of a distinctly Lovecraftian nature. I read this book in one sitting, unable to free myself from its grasp until it was through with me, then immediately went and bought the second book. Yes, it is the first in a trilogy, the Southern Reach Trilogy, but make no mistake, this book works perfectly on its own. Each book continues the narrative, but is wholly different in theme, save for the impending dread dripping from the words. For those brave enough to venture within Area X on the twelfth expedition, stay strong, stay sane, and pray you come out the same, if you come out at all.
- Ben, Receiving Supervisor
September 2016. There are many ways in which one could categorize James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods. It’s a modern slave narrative, and a frightening one to be sure. It’s a comment on the present state of race relations and economic disenfranchisement in America. It’s a hero’s origin story, one in which the hero spends most of his time in the underworld and comes away from it more than a little scarred. Its title is even suggestive of the heroic mythology: if you eat the fruit of the underworld, you won't leave it unscathed. While Delicious Foods is all of these familiar things, it harnesses these attributes and emerges as a strikingly original, emotionally jolting and exquisitely written novel.
Our heroes, impoverished African American mother and son Darlene and Eddie Hardison, each are grappling with their respective handicaps right from the start. Eddie's physical handicap, introduced in the novel's introduction, remains a mystery until much later; we're confronted by Darlene's right away. A college-educated woman still devastated by survivor's guilt over her husband's lynching and trapped in dead-end work, Darlene has started to walk the street, hustling for johns to support both her young son and a just-barely-functional dependence on crack cocaine.
Right from the get-go, we meet “Scotty,” the literal personification of crack. Every other chapter is presented with Scotty’s sassy, serpentine narration as he (or she, or it) relates the story, interjecting "Bye, Felicia"-style sparklers that up the humor of many seedier passages, but also hammer home the grit:
“Get out there! I said. Ain’t nothing shameful ’bout trying to survive, bitch. Don’t you know the street always got a answer?”
Very soon, the street does seem to present an answer: One night, Darlene is approached about a job that will pay well and house and feed her. Before she can fully comprehend what’s happening, Darlene signs her rights away and is transported to her place of employment. Far from being a heaven-sent opportunity, the employer, Delicious Foods, operates nefariously, to say the least, fostering its employees' existing drug habit to keep them docile, all the while subjecting them to sub-standard working and living conditions and garnished wages. Constant threats of swift and arbitrary punishment for any infraction hang in the air like a flock of grackles. Darlene plans to call her son as soon as possible to let him know her whereabouts, but she’s denied access to a phone on the first night. Then the hours turn into days, then into weeks.
When Eddie finally tracks his mother down and joins the Delicious workforce himself, the company's management takes note of his natural tendencies towards leadership and his ability to seemingly mend anything broken. Soon, even Eddie finds himself stuck in the vortex of a cruel system balances occasional rewards and constant depravation. It’s equally unclear if Darlene will ever quite be ready to break up with Scotty and, by extension, the new normal she has made for herself at Delicious Foods.
From its kinetic opening chapter to its gruesome denouement and cathartic finale, Hannaham never fails to surprise the reader with intriguing, but believable, twists and turns, narrative curveballs that ratchet up the tension but never seem implausible. However grim or hopeless the situations in Delicious Foods seem to get, Hannaham's elegantly composed chapters and painterly prose never leave the reader wanting for moments of beauty or the promise of salvation.
For such a brutal and sweeping work, the word "sensitive" also comes to mind when discussing Delicious Foods. Hannaham's depiction of addiction, both shocking and relatable, makes Darlene's descent into Scotty's clutches, and the clutches of Delicious, all the more understandable. Add to this a lineup of characters that, in less capable hands, would come off as cartoonish: the small town curmudgeon named Sparkplug, the alcoholic bum named Tuckahoe Joe, local hookers named Giggles, Fatback and Kim Ono. Here, all are rendered with a vivid immediacy that makes them authentic, knowable, existing in a place beyond the traditional stock character. I was on the alert for ham-fisted passages, for contrived secondary characters with goofy names, and for preachy or didactic asides about addiction or poverty. By the final pages, my fears were still unmerited.
No single encapsulation really does justice to Delicious Foods. When I describe it to friends and customers, I usually say that it's a bit like The Wire, only it’s more Southern, more rural, more surreal. It feels at once rooted in the present conversation about racial and economic inequality, and, at the same time, effortlessly timeless. It’s reminiscent of, and compares favorably, to great works like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. Yet, for all its familiar aspects, Delicious Foods remains truly unlike anything I’ve ever read.
- Kieran, Book Soup Bookseller
August 2016. Take any chance you get to read the essays of Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone magazine. No one these days captures the absurdity and sheer joy of popular culture quite like him. Maybe the Real Housewives and Kimye is not your bag, but trust us, you'll revel in the word play anyway, and his enthusiasm is catchy.
Sheffield is one of our finest rock journalists, too, possessed with a keen knowledge of all musical genres and his writing is witty, wonky, and completely accessible to the casual reader. He's not imbedded with the artist's entourage, he's reporting live from the sweaty mosh pit! He's a proxy for all music fans.
We chose Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time as our August pick for (Book) Soup of the Month because it's a fantastic book, one that will make you laugh, cry, recall your own early-adult life, and probably send you back through your old record/CD collection. If you are of a certain age, you might even be fortunate enough to still have a collection of mix tapes from the 90's.
Each chapter in this memoir begins with an actual playlist that Sheffield created at key moments in his early adulthood. I don't want to give away too much because the real thrill of this book is the discoveries you make along the way - young love, nights out, songs and bands you have long forgotten. Just keep some tissues handy. That's not to say this book will break your heart, but it's touching. It's a quick read, and a delight as well.
We thought maybe you could use a fun read to close out the summer, and while Mix Tape is not a new book (it was published in 2007), it's one that we thought you might have missed. If you love it as we do, please keep in mind that Sheffield has authored several other excellent collections including Turn Around Bright Eyes and most recently On Bowie. There's another new book on the horizon too, Dreaming the Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, which will be published by Dey Street Books in October.
- Dan, Book Soup Assistant Promotional Director
July 2016. 2016 has so far been a year for the world to re-evaluate many issues. The European Union. Global migration and domestic immigration. The U.S. political system. #BlackLivesMatter. Perhaps most pressing, this country’s propensity for gun violence has prompted Governor Brown to sign into law a slew of new gun-control measures, as the rest of the country dithers about the situation, even after the historic House sit-down in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.
Speaking to the latter two concerns, the release in paperback of Jill Leovy’s devastating, true-crime survey, Ghettoside, could not be better-timed. It reads like a novel, and this meticulously researched investigation of violence in South Los Angeles - specifically, black-on-black crime in urban areas, and the complexities of law enforcement therein - should be required reading for everyone who resides here.
We all know that there are areas in Los Angeles where, more or less, one “just doesn’t go.” An L.A. resident for over thirty years, I can say, with no pride, that I’ve not once been to Watts, the Hollenbeck Division, the Seventy-Seventh Street Division (where the L.A. riots broke out), nor any of the areas surveyed in this book, and have only a general idea of where they are geographically located. Not only is there no pressing reason to go there, one of the very first things I realized about L.A. is that, realistically, one can live here without ever glimpsing the blighted areas of the region (the revitalization of Downtown L.A., with its many elements of gentrification notwithstanding). Once, on an Amtrak heading to Santa Barbara, I recall reading a sign specifying “Something Housing Project.” “Oh, that’s what it looks like,” I thought, “interesting.” Our freeways, which were, in general, built through less affluent neighborhoods, serenely glide many of us over streets where lives are lost in shameful numbers.
Leovy’s book is grounded in eleven years of research. She was embedded in the LAPD’s Seventy-Seventh-Street Division, and in 2006 launched an online L.A. Times feature, “The Homicide Report,” an effort, she writes in her Author’s Note “to provide a…day-to-day accounting of every homicide in (L.A.) County.” The blog ran for two years, in which she reported on “about a thousand” homicides. Just think about that figure! What have you been doing in the past two years? And that’s only taking into consideration deaths, not assaults, not rapes, not robberies. Typical of the striking detail of Ghettoside is the definition of “almocides” - almost homicides - a portmanteau reference to the “four or five injury shootings for every fatal one in South Los Angeles,” leaving thirty, mostly black, males per month “paralyzed, comatose (or) brain injured” in the early 2000s.
There are many, many statistics in this book, as well as a survey of the great black migration from southern states after World War II, and much time is spent on minutiae of the inner workings of the LAPD. So, in a way, it’s a sociological text, as well as a police procedural. Another heartbreaking detail reported by Leovy: three generations after that initial migration from the South, numerous parents sent their sons out of L.A., back to the areas where the families originally lived – explicitly so that the young men wouldn’t be killed. A police chaplain describes “homicide eyes,” a flat gaze common to the grief of family members losing loved ones to violence.
Regarding the always-controversial LAPD, Leovy’s approach is not at all the usual “us-vs-them” (i.e. cops-vs-criminals) narrative. She doesn’t take sides, nor really discuss, the legacy of the LAPD. Rather, she focuses on the interface between the criminal justice system and the communities it polices. She writes, “To assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception.”
Where this already extraordinary book truly excels is in the depth of its characters, the details of individual cases Leovy witnesses in real time. She relates the separate, seemingly random, shootings of two young black men, Dovon Harris (aged 15) and Bryan Tennelle, (aged 18 and the son of an LAPD detective who lived and worked in the precinct, a rarity) and the aftermath to their families. She narrates the efforts of detectives Wally Tennelle, John Skaggs, Greg de la Rosa, and others, to navigate law enforcement protocol, bureaucracy, and complicated relationships within the force, as well as the maddening (to me) complexity of working with underserved communities, the codes and dynamics which prevail there, and the wracking reality of families’ bereavement living under what one detective termed, “The Monster – the whole mess of it.”
In her epilogue, Leovy writes that, as of 2015, “homicides in Los Angeles County have fallen to levels that (were) unimaginable…at the turn of the (21st) century…the Monster is in retreat.” You’ll have to read the book to understand the complexities behind The Monster’s unraveling. Since the epilogue was written, homicide rates have once again increased in Los Angeles, and Leovy’s summary remains pertinent: “Anyone who tracks homicide in L.A. County can’t escape the obvious: black men remain disproportionately victimized…we should not disagree about the problem’s urgency.” It’s a stunning and brave work.
-Amelia, Book Soup Bookseller
JUNE 2016. When he wrote The Loved One, a short satirical novel set in 1948 Los Angeles, Evelyn Waugh was, indeed, in Hollywood. The popular British author, known for Scoop and a Handful of Dust, had come west to
talk about a possible film deal for his master work, Brideshead Revisited. The deal fell through, and Waugh clashed with what he perceived to be LA’s overall lack of propriety. He had a lot of complaints, and he was very inspired.
The Loved One follows Waugh’s surrogate, Dennis Barlow, a young-ish British poet hot off his first realpublishing success. Dennis heads to Hollywood, where he takes- and immediately leaves- a screenwriting gigat a studio, soon after finding employment at a pet crematory, “The Happier Hunting Ground.” Here, Dennis makes house calls to the rich and famous, disposing of their furry dead at outsize expense. But he isn’t the only expat in town, and the older, wealthier British set view his morbid occupation as reflecting poorly on their proud Hollywood community of actors and writers. They urge him to refocus his energy. The thing is, Dennis likes his new job. A lot.
Dennis’ fascination with death causes him to wander Whispering Glades, a pristine all-service burial ground and mortuary. Waugh’s portrait of Glades was clearly taken from Forest Lawn Memorial Park, which he was fascinated with, and which indeed played the part in the book’s totally restructured and poorly-reviewed
1965 film adaptation. It’s here at Whispering Glades that Dennis meets the beautiful and cosmetically gifted Aimee Thanatogenos (literally “beloved, born of death”) with whom he becomes infatuated. Aimee has an infatuation of her own: her boss Mr. Joyboy, a simpering mortician known for imprinting his bodies (called “Loved Ones”) with a blissful smile. Dennis attempts to woo Aimee by sending her famous poems he didn’t write. Mr. Joyboy attempts to woo Aimee by sending her the most radiant corpses to decorate.
The Loved One provides a searing, viciously observant send-up of 1940’s Los Angeles. While peripherally involving the film scene, Waugh focuses instead on a larger coagulating set of morality and values, a culture of “packaging” people, and indulgent obsessions with beauty, death, and, above all, beauty in death.
It’s not only Hollywood that finds itself under fire, but the funeral and mortuary industry, a business portrayed as invasive, exploitative, artificial, and spiritually desolate. Yet, for all its garishness, Whispering Glades exudes gaudy, mystical charm, and like Dennis, the reader cannot resist taking a closer look.
I first read The Loved One in a high school satire lit class alongside Gulliver’s Travels and Candide. As a native Virginian who had never seen anything but the east coast, I was distinctly aware that many of the references to LA culture and geography were far beyond me. I longed to be in on the joke. Five years later, as I journeyed west on a weeklong road trip, I cracked my copy open and found myself again brimming
with ghoulish curiosity. It was my first literary picture of Hollywood (and, yes, I still wanted to move here after reading it).
The Loved One is a truly unique book about Los Angeles, written by an outsider who was briefly an insider, a house guest who may have sent a “Thank You” note to his hosts but secretly kept a list of grievances. The book’s success in America baffled Waugh, who perhaps thought we didn’t have the ability to laugh at ourselves, that we didn’t fully understand what he was saying, or a little of both. While sometimes referred to
in criticisms as Waugh’s “hate letter” to America, The Loved One is also unbelievably fun and silly. It’s a crisp, dishy work from a writer at the top of his game.
-Donald, Book Soup Bookseller
MAY 2016. Sara Majka’s Cities I've Never Lived In is a graceful meditation on loneliness and loss, following the travels of a young New England woman fresh from a divorce. In fourteen interconnected short stories, this unnamed narrator drifts in and out of place, in and out of belonging, moving through settings familiar and strange. Crafted in language at once spare and rich with detail, each story in this collection took me by surprise with moments of instant recognition, as if Majka had tapped into a feeling I'd felt many times over but been unable to name.
The New York of Cities I've Never Lived In is one where the light on the subway strips strangers of artifice, "as if on the trains they wore the faces they had when alone." In its Maine, young women vanish into thick, coastal fog and islands are reduced to rubble. These settings, among others, find our narrator both surrounded by humanity and dreadfully cut off from it.
"The Museum Assistant" and the title tale are standout stories, exemplifying the collection's major themes:
In "The Museum Assistant" – a brief, atmospheric tale – an employee at an overlooked museum on New York City's Upper East Side obsesses over strangers she encounters, yet misses opportunities to genuinely connect. Everything in her life feels uncertain "in the way we sometimes wonder, when in love, whether this might be a person we don't love at all." Confronted with an image of herself as a child, she wonders how she ever could have felt the determined, focused certainty she sees.
"Cities I've Never Lived In" follows a young artist on a journey through mid-sized cities of the central United States in which she tours a series of soup kitchens (whether this is well-intended performance art or crass tourism in other people's misery – or if, perhaps, those are one and the same – is largely left to the reader's discretion). Our narrator awaits phone calls from a lover, visits church "knowing that it could be an answer to the loneliness, but that you had to believe in order for that to be the case," and ponders, with her mother, whether art can be too compassionate, whether art is inherently unkind.
"There are not enough cities in the world to make me happy," the narrator thinks. And this, perhaps, could serve as the collection's tagline. Its characters and the locations they move through are haunted by unhappiness. No change of scenery can erase this fundamental fact.
If the stories in this collection can, at times, feel inconclusive, that is only because loneliness and isolation – the central themes Majka revisits compulsively, unceasingly – are themselves without conclusion. Cities I've Never Lived In does not purport to offer solutions, and its few moments of true compassion can be hard-won. Nevertheless, readers will find in these stories moments of almost painful self-recognition. Majka's debut reminds us that, as insoluble as loneliness can seem, it is the job of the artist to make us feel, if not less alone than at least like our inherent, human loneliness is not only ours to bear.
-Nadine, Book Soup Supervisor